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As the White House steps up its push to increase vaccinations, police unions across the country are protesting local mandates, despite the number of COVID-19 deaths among officers.
Last month, when Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago said there would “absolutely” be a vaccine mandate for city employees, the local police union promised legal action.
“It cannot be mandated. It’s that simple. Our members don’t want to be mandated to do anything like that,” said the union president, John Catanzara. “This vaccine has no studies for long-term side effects or consequences. None. To mandate anybody to get that vaccine, without that data as a baseline, amongst other issues, is a ‘Hell, no’ for us.”
Catanzara also likened the vaccine mandates to the Holocaust, saying, “We’re in America, g*ddamn it. We don’t want to be forced to do anything. Period. This ain’t Nazi f***ing Germany, [where they say], ‘Step into the f***ing showers. The pills won’t hurt you.’ What the f***?”
Catanzara’s opposition to mandates is indicative of a larger trend across the nation’s law enforcement organizations. Meanwhile, three times more officers died of COVID-19 in 2020 than in firearm-related incidents, according to tracking from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. The National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) stated that 644 officers have died from the virus as of Sept. 10, but noted that “not all” of the deaths “have been verified.”
“We are a union, and we will defend our members,” FOP executive director Jim Pasco told Axios last month. “You cannot tell people what to do. It’s still an individual and personal choice.”
On Thursday, President Biden announced new measures in an attempt to increase vaccination rates across the country, as the Delta variant rages in some areas. One of those measures requires that all federal employees and contractors be vaccinated. Last month, the Pentagon said it was making the vaccine mandatory for 1.3 million active-duty service members.
Vaccination rates remain low among many police departments. Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michael Moore said that 51 percent of the department was vaccinated as of Aug. 31. Late last month, widows of some of the officers who have died from the disease were featured in a video issued to the department, encouraging officers to get vaccinated. According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, data showed that 85 percent of infected LAPD members were unvaccinated.
The Los Angeles City Council passed a mandate last month that would require all city employees to be vaccinated by early October, unless they have a medical or religious exemption, at which point they would receive weekly testing. The law doesn’t say what happens to employees who do not have a legitimate exemption and refuse to get the vaccine. Unions for the city’s police and firefighters have proposed an alternative, where members who do not wish to get vaccinated can submit to weekly testing.
In New York City, the local police union is demanding that unvaccinated officers who get tested for the virus must be allowed to do so during working hours, or receive overtime pay if they get tested while off the clock. The NYPD has pushed back, saying that officers should get tested off duty and will not be paid overtime for doing so. NYPD leaders also released data in late August showing that only 47 percent of the 35,000 uniformed officers and 18,000 civilian employees in the department were vaccinated.
“We lost three members last week, two of them to COVID, and I think it's all unnecessary, to some degree,” NYPD commissioner Dermot Shea said in an Aug. 24 interview with NY1. “And I just, everyone I think, all across this country, really, should be embracing these vaccines.”
Police in Massachusetts are among the loudest critics of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed vaccine mandate for state employees. The State Police union, which represents 1,900 people, called the mandate a “surprise” and “crudely done.”
“It was hurried and rushed, with no input from any association,” said the union president, Mike Cherven.
At least one city has already carved out a special policy for officers. Portland, Ore., Mayor Ted Wheeler announced Wednesday that police would be exempt from the mandate that was issued for city employees, saying he was “disappointed that we can’t hold all of our City employees to the same vaccine requirement.” The city had announced on Aug. 30 that all its employees were required to be vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.
In an email exchange between the police union and city obtained by Willamette Week, an attorney for the Portland Police Association, wrote on Aug. 27 that “many first responders are deeply opposed to vaccine mandates; so deeply that some will leave the profession before accepting a mandate” and that “the city’s desire to mandate vaccinations for police and dispatch will ultimately exacerbate an already dangerous staffing crisis.”
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